Five ‘Magic’ Movies….

•April 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I love magic but no more than I love the other two big M words—Movies and Music. Well this week I want to list five movies that utilized magic in a way that really impressed me, or that just really enjoyed. As in all my top five lists I am trying to avoid a couple of the obvious choices in favor of slightly less populist selections. In other words, I’m not including ‘The Prestige’ or ‘The Illusionist’ in this list, both movies that really didn’t connect with me as deeply as they seem to have done with so many others.

F for Fake.

wellesfforfakeexitthroughthegiftshopThis 1973 gem is my very favorite movie about magic, deception and illusion. It was directed and stars the great Orson Welles, who was a big fan, and sometimes practitioner, of the magical arts. There are a small group of movie buffs (myself included) that feel that this is one of the really great and TOTALLY underrated movies by Mr. Welles. There is a great deal of subtlety in the content and structure of this movie that will appeal to any magician.

As an exercise in the relationship of editing to magic and the implied magic of causal relationships in film making, this movie will definitely support several viewings before you even begin to grasp the tongue in cheek brilliance of its director and star. How do you begin to describe it? If you are smart you don’t, you just point out that it exists and hope a few people who haven’t seen the film get to discover it.

I remember during a party in our Las Vegas home getting into a deep conversation about the movie with Johnny Thompson who was deeply desirous of obtaining a copy. I deserted my party guests and dubbed a bootleg copy of my bootleg copy for John. As a further hint, if you really enjoy the movie then you may want to order a copy of Robert Anton Wilson’s third book in his ‘Cosmic Trigger’ trilogy which is an amazing analysis of a truly amazing piece of movie making.

Houdini.

I have a very soft spot for this hokey old movie starring Tony Curtis as the seminal magician from so many of our childhoods. I saw it at just the houdini-movie-poster-1953-1020143848right time and it totally stole my heart with its romanticism and Technicolor simplicity. Coupled with William Lindsay Gresham’s great biography Houdini took his place in my heart and made my future as a magician inevitable.

You haven’t seen the movie? Oh my God, get going! Cook up popcorn and perhaps make it a double bill with ‘Dancing in the Rain,’ and have a good old-fashioned movie night.

The Linguini Incident.

Here is an obscure one! Directed by the late Richard Shepard (father of my long time friend and director Tony Shepard) the movie stars David Bowie and Rosanna Arquette. It is a light-hearted and romantic look at a Houdini obsessed character Monte, played by Bowie, and a robbery caper. Is it a great movie? Not really but it is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed and you might well too.

Casino Royale.

No, not the great James Bond reboot starring Daniel Craig. I am talking about the 1967 comedy romp starring both Peter Sellers and David Niven as secret agent 007. The movie also featured cameos by an extraordinary cast of stars, including Orson Welles as the arch villain Le Chiffre. It is once again Mr. Welles who brings in the magic element, when he performs a magnificently theatrical Asrah illusion during the climatic casino scene in the movie.  It had some real gravitas.

The_Linguini_IncidentAs a further reflection on the magic of editing it is worth pointing out that during this pivotal showdown between the characters played by Welles and Sellers the two actors refused to be in the studio at the same time! The movie was filmed at the height of Mr. Sellers ‘crazy time’ and he was something of a nightmare to work with, but this scene worked out pretty darn well in my opinion. The 15-year old version of me who saw this movie in the cinema when it was released just loved it and found it highly inspirational.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

I know how universally hated this movie was by magicians in America—I just don’t know why? My guess is that for many of us it really treated magicians in a very dismissive manner and with NO degree of awe or exaltation. I thought the film was consistently funny and nicely kept to a low key level. This is not a movie that went for big laughs, however I thought it kept the laughs going throughout at a nice pace. I particularly enjoyed Jim Carey’s turn as Steve Gray, a ‘street magician’ who resembled David Blaine to a very high degree.

I loved the casually insensitive handling of Olivia Wilde’s assistant/magician character Jane in the movie. I also thoroughly enjoyed Alan Arkin’s role as Rance Holloway (I especially love the name) in the production. Hey, enough trying to justify a movie that was so thoroughly panned by magicians— suffice to say, “It made me laugh!”

My web site/online store is www.nicklewin.com

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Five Ways To Improve Your Act.

•April 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nick Simi2My next list of five items is one that is very near and dear to my heart; it is my top five ways that a magician can improve his show. I am going to make this a short and sharp column because I have written individually about all the items on this list before, and in some cases at quite great length. However in my personal goal of condensing my thoughts on magic into five groups of five it would be incorrect of me not to state them again.

Focus.

The greatest way to improve any show is to spend some serious time deciding what you want the audience to take away with them after the show is done. Once you have analyzed your conclusion then the easiest way to bring it to being is to focus on the things that help and hinder your audience in their reactions to your magic.

Focusing what you say and do during your performance is the golden key to achieving your greatest potential as an entertainer. If you are fuzzy in your methods and application then it is very unlikely that you will ever really achieve the goals that you set yourself. I know that classically ‘the three golden rules’ of being a magician are ‘practice, practice and practice, but I truly believe the three golden rules to being an effective and entertaining magician are ‘focus, focus, focus.’

Visibility.

It is vital for a magician to make his magic as visible as possible to the audience. We often spend hours in front of a mirror practicing a routine/movesimi 12 and end up worrying more about what we are seeing and not nearly enough about ways that we can help our audience get a better visual grasp of what is going on. Sometimes this can be as simple as adjusting the height at which we hold a prop or the angle that we present our effects to the viewers. The simplest guideline is that if they can’t see it then they won’t like it.

Editing.

It is almost impossible to edit your performance too tightly. It is very easy to fall in love with of words and actions without every fully realizing that this has happened. If you can achieve something with less words or actions then the over all effect is probably going to be much simpler and easier for an audience to grasp. This in turn will strengthen the impact of what you do and enhance the enjoyment of the audience.

The old saying amongst gardeners is to prune a rose bush as if it belonged to your worst enemy. Be ruthless and cut it way back and the roses will flower all the more spectacularly next season–a fine metaphor for cutting back on any redundancy in your show.

Simplicity

simi 9The very best way to achieve any result in a magic show is to search for the simplest method that can achieve the strongest method. Always distance yourself from what you personally feel about a trick and try and focus on what the audience is going to see and feel. I am certainly not suggesting that you dumb a trick down just to make it easier to perform, just have an ethic of simplicity that prevents you from the cardinal sin of over complication.

if there is a less complicated way to achieve any given effect then there is probably a lot to be said for taking that route to your destination. At the very least there is probably less chance of it going wrong (enemy number one!) and more available time and attention to spend on your presentation.

Entertainment 

As magicians we obviously love magic and everything that it entails— otherwise we wouldn’t devote our lives to it. It is always worth remembering that there are a great many people who are not quite as excited about being fooled.

There are people who are not particularly fond of comedians, however a great many more people like to laugh than be fooled. Our job is to tie up the magic in a nice little entertainment package that is of maximum enjoyment to the largest amount of people. Our goal should never be the trick but rather the way that trick affects the audience.

The 2014 Austin Magic Auction.

•April 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I am delighted to share an account of the 2014 Austin Magic Auction by my guest blogger Susan (aka Mrs. Nick) Lewin. I had really wanted to attend the auction and was delighted to read Susan’s run down of the event. I will be there next year– it sounds great!

2014 Auction TeamOn Saturday afternoon April 5, I was fortunate to spend time at the annual World Famous Austin Magic Auction in Cedar Park, Texas (a suburb of Austin) for IBM Ring 60 that has been a standing tradition for 30 years. The auction was well attended by magi from Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and out of state. The entrance fee for everyone including the auctioneers was ten dollars and well worth the price of admission.

The event was a beautifully coordinated with masses of computerized sales going on. The rotating auctioneers included the hilarious David Hira, attorney Grant Walsh and fez fatale Scott Wells. These magicians did an amazing job selling and demonstrating hundreds of magic props and collector items over a ten-hour span with grace, charm and wit. The effervescent auction chairperson, Trixie Bond, was the perfect hostess and kept everything flowing, handling all those minute details that pop up during the course of an event.

The auction was divided into two rooms: the silent auction and the live auction. In the church hall, tables were set up by category and each item was clearly marked, bagged and computerized. My favorite table was the eclectic grab bag table and I sized it up for eliminating a lot of Nick’s “junk” for next year. Fascinating to see all the empty black trunks for sale: it looked the Lewin garage.

The sanctuary had a huge stage that held props and illusions and the attendees sat in the pews. The auctioneers were beautifully ‘mic’d,’ extremely talented at their job, keeping it moving at a break neck pace. David Magee commented to me on FaceBook: “You’ve been here three months and we finally got you into church.” My response was, “You Texans roped me in.”

The kids from the Fantastic Magic Camp in their brightly colored red tee shirts were hard at work distributing the auction purchases and selling photoconcessions. All the items were computerized and well marked. The bidding was intense and most items sold until the very end when money was beginning to thin, as well as the audience. Some might say they were “magicked out” by 6 PM.

I knew some of the magi including Alex Gutierrez, S.P. Lodge, Doug Gorman, Dwayne Stanton and David Hira and enjoyed meeting chairperson Trixie Bond, Paul Mimms, Michael Tallon and co-chairperson J.D. Stewart.

The ladies at the back of the room had every item bagged, labeled, checked and paid for—it was a regular machine. They were extremely efficient and Heather did a terrific job coordinating offers on products for sale. I was thrilled that the six of the seven items that we submitted sold. The ring’s charge is twelve percent and worth every penny.

With true Texas hospitality, complimentary healthy snacks were provided by Doc Seaton; these including nuts, tangerines, water and my personal favorite Fritos. Pizza, spaghetti and salad lunch were also available for purchase.

I am looking forward to the World Famous Austin Magic Auction of 2015 and have it marked in my datebook.

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Five really great tricks (and why!)

•April 4, 2014 • 2 Comments

There are so many great tricks that I have seen over the years that compiling my list of five greatest tricks this week is going to prove another very tough experiment in exclusion! I decided to continue in my previous footsteps as I compose my list and to keep the list highly personal and based on the impact that they hit me with as performed by specific performers. The Zig Zag Lady. harbinzigzag2While I am not much of a fan of Grand Illusion I would have to say that this effect is truly a classic and deserves to be very close to the top of my list. The reason is simple, it really, really fooled me for many years, and I just couldn’t get my mind around a solution. Eventually after seeing enough mediocre versions I tumbled to all the subtleties involved. I still wish I hadn’t. As presented originally by its creator, Robert Harbin this was an amazing visual mystery. The manner in which he presented it had a great deal to do with the stunning impact. In a low key and casual manner Harbin would assemble the prop onstage, in front of the audience, before he presented it. This was amazingly strong theatre and made the trick even more astounding than it would otherwise have been. I have never seen anyone present the Zig Zag better than Harbin. Micro Macro. I first witnessed this masterful piece of magic performed by Jon Tremaine in the magic shop on Tottenham Court Road in London. He fooled me so much that I couldn’t believe I would be able to perform it myself after I purchased it. I got the trick home and was amazed at how simple Bro John Hamman’s thinking was in achieving such an amazing effect. It was simple but oh so subtle. Would it actually fool anyone when I presented it myself? After a little practice the answer was YES—everyone. Years later I was fooled all over again by the same trick when I saw Ron Wilson perform it in the Close-Up Gallery in the Magic Castle. When Ron stood up at the completion of the trick it was a total mind blowing experience to me. It was a perfect blend of performer and material. Card Under Ashtray. I don’t think I have ever witnessed finer misdirection than standing around in Davenports Magic Shop in London watching Pat Page improvise 1812around this effect. It was a lesson in magic that I will never, ever forget. It was one of the first times that I realized the incredible effectiveness of being able to repeat an effect. Every time my card arrived under that overflowing ashtray on the counter I gasped in amazement at Pat’s ability to break one of magic’s ten commandments as demonstrate the power of repetition made possible by faultless technical skill. The Vanishing Birdcage. I am not much of a fan of this effect generally speaking, mostly because it usually doesn’t looks that much like a real birdcage. Couple that with the incredibly unnatural manner in which the cage needed to be handled and it ended up leaving me cold, until I saw it performed by Billy McComb.There is a wonderful video of Billy performing it on YouTube that perfectly captures his masterful presentation. The freedom with which the cage was handled in the method McComb used was the first quantum leap forward in his routine. Without going into details, the amended prop and the handling it allowed just put the trick into another league. The finishing touch was the way the cage seemed to vanish under a translucent handkerchief, it was so much more effective than the standard vanish. When that silk floated gently to the ground the illusion was perfect. The Broomstick Levitation. piet-yvonneWatching the great Richiardi perform this effect was a pure magical treat of the highest order, however I am going to focus here on another performer and his remarkable handling of this seminal piece of magic. That magician is Piet Paulo and unlike most of the other performers I have listed here I am happy to say he is still with us, although sadly no longer performing on a regular basis. You will have to wangle an invitation to his grandson’s next birthday party if you want to catch this legend performing. Piet had a handling of this classic effect that was a masterpiece of angles. Every movement and the placement of each and every prop were psychologically and esthetically perfect to maximize the illusion. I must have seen him present the broomstick live on scores of occasions and it never failed to give me a thrill. The way he handled the applause points in the effect are a lesson in showmanship that bears a great deal of study by aspirant magicians.

The Five Greatest Magicians I saw Live……

•March 29, 2014 • 2 Comments

In the second of my five lists of five I want to reminisce back to the five magicians who really blew me away when I watched them perform. These were my peak viewing experiences and are amongst a mere handful of such moments during my fifty years performing magic. I have tried to add a little hint as to what it was that made them all so special in my eyes.

 Tony Slydini.

Slydini-photoBy far and away the most amazing experience I ever had as a magician was getting to sit down next to Tony Slydini as he performed and taught magic. It was in the late sixties in Ken Brooke’s tiny magic studio on Wardour Street, in London. Seated with me at the table were Pat Page, Bobby Bernard and a couple of other magicians.

What was so amazing was the sheer impossibility of everything that Slydini performed. It was one of the few occasions when what I saw didn’t look like tricks but truly appeared to be magic. A great deal is made of the fact that in order to perform Tony’s magic you need to adopt some of his style and mannerisms to make it work. Unless you actually saw Slydini perform live it is easy to fail to appreciate how incredibly natural his movements and performance were when he did them.

Billy McComb.

The first time I saw Billy perform was at the Conway Hall in London and his act included ‘The Half Dyed Silk,’ ‘The Gypsy

Thread’ and ‘A Chicken Production.’ I remember every trick almost fifty years later! What I remember most of all though was how incredibly funny he was. That was the amazing part about vintage McComb—the tricks were as strong as the comedy and combined together they were a blockbuster tour de force. Billy is still my hero.

Siegfried & Roy.siegfried-and-roy3

When I first saw Siegfried and Roy it was in their ‘Beyond Belief’ show at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. I had just taped a ‘Merv Griffin Show’ at Ceasars Palace and with a certain reluctance decided to catch their show. Why reluctance? Well I was no big fan of grand illusion (I’m still not) and thought their whole image was overblown and rather dumb. I also was no fan of the use of exotic animals in magic.

The dice were rather weighed against my enjoyment of the show and then to my delight I was charmed, astounded and delighted by what I saw. It was a truly amazing show and made me a fan for life; in fact I had to catch the show again just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. They performed a superb one-hour magic variety show and then just when you were ready to leave delighted, they did another thirty minutes of incredible non-stop magic. Truly ‘Beyond Belief.’

Albert Goshman.

The first time I saw Albert perform in the Close-up Gallery at the Magic Castle I was in magical heaven. It was the amazing skill that his show albert_goshmaninvolved coupled with a personality that was absolutely unique. It was just astounding the way those coins arrived under the salt shaker! Just as astounding was the brilliance with which he handled the two assistants who sat at the table with him. They were the ones who really ‘sold’ the magic but it was Albert who sold them!

Albert remains in my opinion the greatest master of misdirection I have ever seen, along with the late, great Jimmy Grippo. Sadly neither of these great artists were ever fully represented in video renditions of their work, as their misdirection just doesn’t seem to gel in quite the right manner.

Ross Johnson.

I am a huge fan of Mentalism and I consider Ross to be one of the absolutely convincing practitioners in this field. I could have chosen Max Maven, Glenn Falkenstein, Jon Stetson or Maurice Fogel easily in this category but I decided to go with Ross because I honestly feel he is the most convincing mentalist I have ever witnessed.

I remember being spellbound the first time I watched Ross perform his classic Blindfold Act in a small nightclub. There was a slightly edgy sense of self-irritation in his performance that I just loved. If he didn’t get it quite right, it seemed to bug him and drive him further into uncovering hidden details. He is truly a master of the wonderful world of mind reading.

Well that is this blog’s list, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to re-think and re-live my first impressions of these master entertainers. Looking back at the list I realize that a key element is that they all really fooled me. I recently interviewed David Regal for an article and he stated that it was the real goal of every magician when watching a fellow magician to be fooled as a layman would. I think David is 100% correct!

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Five Great Magic Books To Read……

•March 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

professional_touchInspired by our recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival here in Austin I am beginning my own ‘5X5’ series of blog posts. I am going to create a five-week run of columns by detailing a list of five classic and totally personal favorite books that are required reading in my opinion. I am starting my lists with books because I still (maybe, I’m old fashioned!) think that studying from a book adds that little something extra to the learning experience.

I will have to begin with a Billy McComb book and although ‘McCombs Magic: 25 Years Wiser’ is the one I always refer to as the ‘bible of comedy magic,’ I am going to go with his 1987 book ‘The Professional Touch.’ This book was adapted from the wonderful audiotapes that my dear friend Martin Breese recorded as part of his Magicassette series. ‘The Professional Touch’ contains a treasure house of stories, tips and advice that are indispensable reading for any magician. It is a delightful little tomb that even includes a bonus in the form of McComb’s ‘Nap Hand Routine.’ I have serious doubts as to how many people are still familiar with the game of Nap in the era of Candy Crush, but a bonus is a bonus!

Of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out what a great little book Billy’s ‘The First Book of William’ is. However, I don’t think it is available at this point in time. On a historic level, it does establish Billy as the creator of the ‘Hot Book’ effect. This led directly to the ‘Hot Wallet’ without which most performers would have empty hands in their working photos!

The second book I want to recommend is by Roy Johnson, the ultimate master of smooth commercial routines. Much as I love his first book ‘The 656_Tales_from_the_Uncanny_Scot_Wilson_RonRoy Johnson Experience’ I am going to skip to his next book the 1971 release ‘Second Time Around.’ Why? Well it is a tough call but the gem in his first book ‘The Chewing Gum Trick’ is now made somewhat invalid due to the change in packaging in chewing gum! His second book contains his ‘Ultimate Key Routine’, which is truly a classic and well worth the price of the book.

My third choice is the 2010 book by Ron Wilson ‘Tales from The Uncanny Scot.’ Of course I could have picked Ron’s classic ‘The Uncanny Scot’ published by Richard Kaufman, I have frequently gone on record as saying it is one of the few books that contains an entire career for an astute reader. However, ‘Tales…’ is a glorious history of magic’s golden Californian era by someone who was there and knew all the players. Plus there are only a handful of copies left and if you buy it now it might well be worth as much as his first book in a few years.

I couldn’t decide which Harry Lorayne book to put on my list because they are ALL so darn good. I decided to skip the mental agony of decision and go with a Paul Harris book instead. There are also many fabulous options in the Harris canon but my eventual choice is Paul’s 1979 book ‘Close-Up Entertainer.’ Why? There are just so many damn fine tricks in it. If you don’t end up with some new gems in your repertoire after reading this book then trade in your deck of cards for a mandolin or take up ventriloquism!

harrispaulcloseupentertainerTo round out my list of five books I realized I needed to have a book of Al Koran tricks. I could have been traditional and run with ‘Professional Presentations’ and why not—it is a truly wonderful book. However, in case you haven’t discovered it yet, I am going to run with Martin Breese’s 2011 book ‘Al Koran The Unique Years.’ It is a fine collection of Koran’s routines from various sources that kinda’ fell through the cracks until Martin did such a magnificent job of rethinking the entire Koran legacy. There are lots of little gems hiding in full sight in this book.

Wait a minute! Where are my books from Alan Shaxon, Daryl, David Regal, Bruce Cervon, Max Maven, Bob Cassidy, Neal Scryer, Richard Webster………. Well I guess this is why I restricted the list to 5 books. I decided to restrict the numbers and go for the slightly less obvious books.  Incidentally, modesty prevented me from mentioning that I have a very limited number of signed copies of ‘Sleight of Crime,’ my long out of print 1978 magical murder mystery collection available for $40 via our website or at www.nicklewin@aol.com  Just mentioning it!

It is ALL about the Focal Point.

•March 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nico blueIn my last blog I made some general observations about focus and how it can be applied to the writing, performance and general presentation of magic shows. I had some great feedback from magicians in what I had to say on this topic. Let’s take it a stage further…

In this blog post I want to discuss a very specific application of my general thesis of the importance of focus to a performing magician. In particular I am going to focus on the strictly visual aspect of this matter. I will do this by concentrating on one effect and then give a more general indication of how these theories can improve any magician’s performance.

To be specific, I want to go into a little more detail about the term ‘Focal Point.’ I have touched on this topic before and consider it a very important area for a magician to concentrate on. My first introduction to this term came from the amazingly wise English magician Ken Brooke. It arose while he was teaching me his version of the Linking Rings. Although I did not realize it at the time, what I was really learning in Ken’s studio was his version of Dai Vernon’s ‘Symphony of the Rings’ with one or two interesting variations. In the context of this article let me zero in on just a couple of these changes.

At the time, like most magicians, I felt that the Linking Rings was not fully completed until you unlinked the set of rings at the end of the routine ta7259and displayed them separately after the various linked formations. It seemed orderly, logical and had a nice sense of symmetry. However, Ken ended his version of the classic by going from the chain of six to spinning five rings on just one ring. He felt that anything beyond that was anti-climatic to a lay audience. A very specific form of focus was inherent in this decision, along with the choice to use six rings instead of the (at the time) much more common choice of eight rings. These two factors made it easier for the audience to focus on the core effect of taking separate rings and linking them together.

Along the journey in Ken’s tutoring he placed a great deal of emphasis on where the audiences’ attention and visual focus was during the routine. The exact spot where the action supposedly took place was the area that Ken called the focal point. I have always kept his teachings in the back of my mind and looked for other areas where they could be beneficially applied. Remember a human being can only look in a limited area of a specific place at any one moment.

It is easy for a lay audience to see the various manipulations of the rings as a blur of action and somewhat closer to juggling than individual feats of magic creating a unified chain of events that build on each other. When you slow down the action and have a spectator hold one side of a ring while you concentrate on the upper section and perform a ‘crash through’ link, you really punch home the key effect.

Ken BAs a stand-up comedy magician I have gone to great lengths to try and be very aware of where the audience’s attention is while I try and juggle the dual disciplines of letting them see the magic I am doing without loosing the benefits of looking at my face as I present the comedy. Verbal comedy is stronger when the audience sees your facial expressions as you say the lines. It causes them to focus on what you are saying and the words you are using.

Sometimes you can dramatically improve the reaction to what you are doing magically just by moving the important actions closer to your face. In TV terms blocking the action in terms of a close up shot and raising your hands from performing their movements somewhere between the middle of your chest and your jaw line. Sometimes you want to raise the action even higher.

What makes the ‘Gypsy Thread’ such a powerful effect is the moment when you raise the broken pieces to your mouth and blow on the bundle as they gracefully restore into one length. The audience knows exactly where to look and can be influenced in their reaction by your facial expression.It is this kind of attention to the ‘Focal Point’ that allows me to perform smaller magic to large audiences with very great effect. When you want to open up the ‘Visual Theatre’ then it becomes a definite statement and adds nicely to the variety and texture of your performance.

For those especially interested a full scale explanation of my thoughts on this topic are contained in my ‘Ultimate Linking Finger Ring’ routine and my DVD ‘20210s,’ if you wish to explore these ideas more thoroughly than is practical in this short column.

 
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